Emotional agility is a process that allows us to be in the moment, changing or maintaining our behaviors to live in ways that align with our intentions and values.
– Susan David
We all have our share of experiences we regret because we said or did something out of unprocessed anger or fear. Looking back we don’t feel we had a choice, overpowered by an intense emotion, we simply acted on it.
Normally, people will go about it in one of 2 ways: either by trying to avoid the uncomfortable emotions at all costs (making the emotion the problem) or by drowning in the emotions, obsessing over the hurt, failure or anxiety, unable to move through them.
Both of these strategies usually lead to more problems down the road.
However, between the emotion and the action, there’s a small wedge of opportunity to choose what to do with that emotion.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
– Viktor Frankl
Emotional agility is a process developed by Susan David that allows us to accept our emotions as a useful part of our human condition and develop the ability to be present to our inner experience but guided by our values and long-term goals.
Learning to show up to our emotions will enable us to live fully and engage with life in a healthy way, using our values as the compass to our actions and our emotions as useful information stations along the way.
This can have a profound impact in all areas of our lives and ultimately on the level of success we achieve.
Success is living in alignment with our values.
– Susan David
Moving Past Positive And Negative
In today’s world, we regularly see references to positive experiences, positive emotions, positive workplaces and so forth. We understand them in opposition to their counterparts.
And I get it; we need words to label things and understand different concepts, however, in rigidly assigning these labels we are also implying and assimilating, consciously or unconsciously, that “negative” things should be avoided.
In doing so with our emotions, we create additional discomfort. Because the more we try to avoid uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, the more we ruminate about them.
If I ask you to stop thinking about a pink elephant, what comes to your mind? All you see and imagine is the very thing you’re suppose to avoid.
Life itself is a fluid process, experiences that we perceived as positive can have negative consequences and negative ones can have beneficial outcomes.
Dropping the negative label will give us a greater range of options on how to address these emotions. So, embracing these emotions and thinking of them not as negative, but as challenging or uncomfortable is the first step to emotional agility.
One of the benefits of a yoga practice is that we develop the ability to tune into the information in our body. Thoughts are in our head but emotions we feel in our bodies.
In psychology, we refer to it as high-level and low-level information. When we practice yoga, we open a channel of communication between high-level and low-level information, basically between thoughts and emotions.
More information leads to more options, and you guessed it, greater emotional agility.
Yoga is a great way of developing this skill, but it’s not the only one.
All emotions carry valuable information about ourselves and what’s important to us, this information can lead to insight and concrete steps into meaningful life directions.
Every emotion has a purpose and helped us survive and evolve as a species.
Fear can help us prepare and assess risks. Sadness is a sign that something is wrong and we want to head in a different direction or that we need help and support.
It can also be a sign of love, grieving for the loss a loved one is a natural response that shows how much that person meant to us.
Guilt tells us we made a mistake and allows us to make amends and learn from it. Even shame can tell you that you’re being overly harsh on yourself and cause you to take a deeper look at the story you’re telling yourself.
Anger is a vital emotion that allows you to set boundaries, limits and understand when your values are being breached and take appropriate action.
Every emotion serves a purpose and carries useful information about ourselves, now the question is how do we deal with these challenging emotions?
Stiffness vs. Flexibility
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…
– John Milton
The mind is a complex and fascinating system. It’s impossible for our mind to process all the information it comes across.
So, over time we create mental shortcuts, presumptions, and rules about the world.
These rules helped us make sense of our experience at some point, but as functioning adults no longer serve us.
- Men shouldn’t cry
- People can’t be trusted
- I’m not creative
- The world is a dangerous place
This rigidity in our thinking and acting can lead us away from our goals and values. A lot of these reactions also come from buying into our old stories:
- I always screw up
- I was never good at facing challenges
- I’m too sensitive to be an entrepreneur
Even a story that is helpful in a certain context, for example, being a highly productive person, can become rigid and maladaptive. If we over react to situations outside of our control, for example getting stuck in traffic and lash out on the person sitting next to us, then that belief becomes rigid maladaptive.
This narrows our ability to look at whatever situation we come across and respond accordingly. People who are hooked on a particular way of thinking or behaving are not actually paying attention to the world as it is (David, 2016). They’re insensitive to context.
They see the world through the lens of their stories and shortcuts.
Being emotionally agile involves being sensitive to context and responding to the world as it is right now.
– Susan David
Emotional agility loosens the grip of these stories. It’s about calming down and choosing how to respond to the emotions. It allows space for the emotion but puts our values in charge of steering us in meaningful life directions.
It’s not about controlling or suppressing emotions, not even forcing positive thinking. Research shows these strategies don’t work and are often counterproductive.
It’s about being dynamic and flexible in our thinking and behavior, looking at the situation within its context, acknowledging our emotions and then intentionally deciding how to respond effectively.
This can help people deal with negative self-image, heartbreak, pain, anxiety, procrastination and a number of other troubles.
Emotionally agile people are able to deal with stress and ever-changing and complex environments. They’re resilient and remain open, receptive and engaged with life.
Bottling And Brooding
Accepting challenging emotions and learning coping mechanisms is easier said than done.
Most people struggle and have their patterns of avoiding or disguising these emotions.
Other people tend to spiral down and have a hard time moving through them.
According to David, some people tend to be bottlers and others tend to be brooders.
Trying to keep things at an arms length can be exhausting. So exhausting that we often drop the load.
– Susan David
Bottlers will do anything to push aside the emotions and move on. They’re likely to suppress these feelings out of a belief that showing signs of distress is a sign of weakness or that being anything less that happy and cheerful is unacceptable.
The way they go about it can vary tremendously. Some people will distract themselves with all sorts of hobbies, go on shopping sprees or lose themselves in work.
Men are more likely to bottle than women. And a lot of it has to do with the underlying message that our society conveys and the way we raise children.
If you have a boy and a girl, you’re more likely to ask your boy what he did in school. But you’re more prone to ask the girl how she felt in school.
Society accepts and even expects girls to show feelings, boys, however, are told from a very young age they shouldn’t cry, to toughen up and man up.
Girls are allowed to cry, but boys are encouraged to suppress their emotions.
These unwritten rules about how men and women should express emotions are called display rules and they have a significant impact on our lives.
The problem with bottling is that ignoring the emotions with endless distractions doesn’t address the root of the issue.
Whatever is causing the emotion remains unattended and unresolved.
Therefore any opportunity to learn and change is unlikely to occur.
On top of that, trying to avoid thoughts and emotions only amplifies them.
But when I hold my books tight to my body, hugging them as if to crush them, my arm muscles also begin to shake. In this position my arms and hands are clenched, closed and unable to do anything else.
– Susan David
The other style of coping is brooding. If you’re a brooder, you have a hard time letting go of the uncomfortable emotions. You find yourself endlessly obsessing about a breakup, a failure, a mistake or a shortcoming.
Brooders tend to lose perspective and turn challenges into problems of epic proportions.
But for one thing, brooders are in touch with their feelings, meaning at least their aware of their emotions.
In general, women are more likely to have this style of coping. And it’s important to note, that both bottlers and brooders have the best of intentions, they both want to deal with the difficult situation.
However avoiding or spiraling down an unproductive chain of thoughts will probably steer us away from dealing with the source of distress.
Occasionally resorting to one or both of these strategies is not a major issue. It’s when we use them as our go-to strategies over and over again that it becomes counterproductive.
Practicing Emotional Agility: 3 Steps
How can we attend to our emotions in healthier ways, then?
1. Show up to your emotions
The first step is accepting and embracing emotions, acknowledging that we all inevitably experience setbacks and feel a wide range of different emotions.
Accurately labeling your emotion will allow you to understand what’s really bothering you. The more specific you can be at identifying the emotion the more information you’ll have.
Expanding your emotional vocabulary is incredibly helpful.
Imagine that you’re feeling anxious. How would you respond to the situation if you were feeling vulnerable? Would you respond the same way if you were feeling confused? Probably not, that’s why naming the emotion accurately is so important.
When we expand our emotional vocabulary we have access to greater and more nuanced information that helps us choose how to respond to the situation at hands.
Here’s a handy tool to help you identify your emotions with more precision.
Once you’ve identified your emotion accurately, you’re in a better position to respond accordingly.
2. Step out
One of the greatest human triumphs is to choose to make room in our hearts for both the joy and the pain and to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
– Susan David
Acknowledge the emotion but remind yourself that it’s just an emotion, just like a thought is just a thought.
We have about 60 000 thoughts per day. They’re not all factual or helpful, and that’s ok because we don’t have to take them all so seriously. They’re transient experiences.
Instead of saying I’m stressed about an evaluation at work, try saying I’m having the thought that I’m stressed about work.
Instead of saying I’m afraid you can say I am experiencing fear.
Dissociating you from the thought and emotion creates space that will allow you to intentionally decide how to respond. It introduces choice into the equation.
In psychology, we refer to it as a meta-awareness, the ability to contemplate our thoughts. And it’s what mindfulness is all about.
Whereas, when you’re hooked on a thought or emotion, you’re completely identified with it. You feel powerless and overwhelmed by your inner experience.
Agility gives you the ability to choose how to react.
It’s not necessarily easy and it will require practice but it’s a key psychological skill behind real transformation and growth.
Approach your emotions with a growth mindset. Reminding yourself it’s a learning process, therefore, mistakes will inevitably happen, but you can learn from them, it’s not about perfection, it’s about learning from our emotions.
3. Walk your why
This is where knowing your values comes into play.
Walking your why is the art of living by our own personal set of values – the beliefs and behaviors that you hold dear and that give you meaning and satisfaction. Identifying and acting on the values that are truly your own – not those imposed on you by others.
– Susan David
To understand what your values are you can ask yourself these questions:
- What matters most to me?
- What do I want to build/achieve in life?
- What kind of relationships do I want to have?
- What’s the motivation behind my actions?
- What do I love doing?
- What situations make me feel alive and engaged?
Then write down your 5 core values. Carry this piece of paper in your wallet or on your phone and every day look at it and ask yourself:
Am I acting in a way that is congruent with what matters most to me?
When you’re in the midst of a challenging emotion ask yourself:
- What am I feeling?
- What are my options for dealing with this?
- What matters most to me?
In the greater picture, we want to be mostly coherent with these values.
But remember this is not about perfection, unrealistic expectations will set you up for frustration. The best thing you can do is let go of the idea of being perfect or fearless and embrace being real.
Wrapping It Up
Tony Robbins says the quality of our lives is tied up with the quality of our questions. One question I find particularly useful is this one: Is it serving me? So my question for you is:
Does it serve you to believe some emotions are wrong?
It’s not only healthier but more productive to embrace emotions as useful navigation devices, not that they’re in charge of our lives but by giving us insight and information, actually help us live aligned with our most cherished values.
It’s when we’re at odds with our emotions that we feel trapped and like we have no choice. But by accepting them and learning healthy coping mechanisms we’re free to choose how to act.
This means we’re more likely to engage with life fully because we know we can respond to our emotions in ways that truly serve us. And that to me sounds a lot more like freedom.
I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.
– Diane Ackerman
Now I’d love to hear from you. When did you last get hooked by your emotions and what strategies helped you deal with them? Please leave a comment below, I love learning from you guys.
David, S. Evaluate your emotional agility. Retrieved here.
David, S. (2016). Emotional agility: Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. United Kingdom: Penguin Life.
David, S. 3 ways to better understand your emotions. Retrieved here.
Harvard. Building emotional agility. Retrieved here.